We like to think we can predict a person’s political bent from just looking at them. We can make a game of it, weighing personality traits with clothing cues, geographical location, music tastes, and even speech patterns. These prove to be charming little glimpses into political allegiance.
Americans, with our fashionably pragmatic two-party system are in a unique position to deposit people rather decisively into one of two camps; this is compared to our European counterparts with their fuzzy, fractured multi-party apparatuses. On our soil we see especially starkly the line in the sand separating two broadly divergent political philosophies — the liberal and the conservative.
It is common to commit the error of assuming political affiliation is merely a collection of token causes that one just so happens to be interested in. The truth is, the liberal and the conservative possess two completely different views of how the world works. Unimpressed, you might say, “well, that’s obvious,” but just wait a second. Is it?
Consider this: We tend to think the problem with our adversaries is that they have their priorities out of order or that their proposed political solutions are just insufficient or misguided. We tend to assume these notions before we would recognize that on scores of hot-button topics we are actually talking past each other, our provocations skating by in the wind. Not in one ear and out the other but past our opponents entirely.
Our conceptions of human nature itself are surprisingly dissimilar. Thus, the conservative and liberal positions can not be chalked up to something as surface-level as divergent shufflings of priorities. “Conception of human nature” is a level of political difference that we rarely travel down to, perhaps because there’s something existentially prickly about designating “perception of reality” as the fence that splits us.
It is not quite correct to say that liberals operate from optimism and conservatives from pessimism. It is more correct to say that conservatives operate from the belief that human nature is relatively stable and liberals from the belief that human nature is decently malleable to social conditioning efforts.
It is worth mentioning at this juncture that a balanced republic has a need for both the liberal and the conservative. And that a marked excess of one or the other would most likely be undesirable and unwise. We must be able to recognize and respect the unique merits of each perspective if we are to coexist peacefully, even if we bristle against the opposite camp’s proposed reforms. How does the other see the world? We ought to consider this question of perspective more, if only to burn off some of the chronic hostility.
You also may think my forthcoming analysis tinged with excess idealism, and rest assured that not every man that calls himself a conservative these days can trace their loyalty back to a coherent philosophy. Just as not every self-labeled liberal can do the same. But the following is a helpful reference point nonetheless, an attempt to define and contrast, to anchor ourselves in our own convictions and better understand our critics.
Conservatives see history and Time as a sorting mechanism and its large-scale aggregation as preserved wisdom of what works for human societies. In contrast, liberals harbor much less fondness for the past, preferring to see it as a fatefully rudimentary chronicle of what could be. In this way, we see that the stereotype of the wistfully nostalgic conservative pining over a bygone past is an instrument of reduction. The conservative nurtures an active belief that the past is instructive, useful, and something to be respected and consulted as a guide.
Liberals unsurprisingly detect a confusing sentimentality here because when they see the past, there is very little they want to pick from it and save. The future arches ahead of them, shimmering and beguiling in its seeming perfectibility. The past is just practice and once life occurs and fades from the present tense it has achieved flat, unexciting irrelevance.
Where we also see these differing faces of human nature at work is in the conservative’s desire for prudence (partly because they tend to be preoccupied with the long-range flow of history) and the liberal’s desire for efficient, sweeping reform. There seems to me to be an enormous misunderstanding of the conservative position in this area.
As I have said, it is not out of a primitive, white-knuckled “fear of change” that the conservative pushes back against such reform. He is not merely a reactionary, his position deriving its energy principally from the stubborn act of resisting change. Instead, his prudence is a standalone pillar of his political philosophy. It cannot be reduced to a reaction; it is a virtue.
There are legitimate reasons for it, the harm-reduction motivation chief among them. As I will explore more later, the conservative regard for the past and championing of political prudence does not deserve to be imputed to a romantic attachment to the way things were. Instead, the conservative believes in a fundamentally different view of how large systems function and how human nature operates than the liberal does.
Conservatives tend to hold a grimmer view of human nature. They hold less hope in the possibility of transcending our animal origins. Their liberal counterparts, on the other hand, are tempted by efforts to sweep these messy realities under the rug. Interestingly, in this way, it is actually the stodgy conservative who is willing to accept the bitter truths of Nature herself and incorporate her scarily turbulent energy into his worldview. And it is the modern progressive that represses this chaotic potential, preferring instead to put full faith in the sanitized “above-ground” terrain of the human powers of rationality.
The tragic posture of the conservative protects him from being dazzled by utopian visions. He is not confident in the scientific gloss of grand schemes of organized egalitarianism, for instance. I have repeatedly stressed that the liberal is led by the “in theory” argument and the conservative steered by the “in practice” line of reasoning. This distinction helpfully supports my earlier assertion that the past is of consequence to conservatives who care about what happened and what worked and merely peripheral to the liberal who cares more for what could be, forever holding out hope for the winning installment of theory application.
We must remember that it is by the great, slashing reforms that the totalitarian movements came to be, reigned militantly by speed and force. It is by the denial of the dark underbelly of human nature that these projects which seemed so promising “in theory” caused death and disarray rather than the human flourishing and hyper-organization assured.
So the caution of the conservative has some real-life basis. He is often looking warily from the past to the future, hoping to delicately keep these primitive energies in check, hoping to maintain law and order without injuring individual sovereignty. He understands it is an enduringly difficult task.
The plausibility of socialism is one question that highlights liberal and conservative disparities in thought concerning human nature. The progressive impulse is to assume that we humans would be content to live in a perfectly egalitarian society if only it were organized for us. The progressive comforts himself with the “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” blurb. Let me underline something important here. There are two reasons progressives like this expression.
One is the cloying niceness of this theoretical society, the everybody-is-taken-care-of sentiment that sits like frosting on top of this argument. The other reason, the deeper draw, is that shimmering suggestion of a society so efficient and so beautifully organized by those at the top thrones of hierarchy that excess is obliterated, resources are touched only by those hallowed throne-occupiers, and the system is optimized to the nth degree. The efficiency reads as transcendence of Nature — what a relief! And reason persuasively insists this intense degree of rational organization is within our grasp.
There is a dash of irony in the observation that those most in love with egalitarianism are those most prepared to entrust the bulk of their lives into a few human hands. This then, would indicate trust in a comparably oppressive hierarchy rather than trust in the individual common man, right?
In any case, the conservative is not convinced of the feasibility of the socialist paradise in practice. They do not believe that the unit of the family, for example, where the charitable ideal of need-based labor flourishes, is remotely scalable to the unit of society. It is not intrinsic to human nature, the conservative would point out, for people to freely acquiesce to sharing their bounty with their distant neighbors. In practice, this kind of wealth-spreading enterprise is likely to cause resentment and alienation to bubble up.
This is the recognition of those “animal origins” I prefaced earlier. Within species, animals protect themselves and their tribe and this is the way the world has functioned since the very dawn of time. That we humans have the consciousness and cognitive faculty to theorize our way out of this biological reality will not make it any less true and will certainly not dent what plays out in practice.
The conservative also broadly accepts that there is an enduring order to the universe and he salutes the constancy of human nature itself. Conservatism relies on a murky intuition that God prevails. An ethos of human limitation persists and can certainly be seen as a nod to this higher authority. So too is the conservative skeptical of human intention, questioning motivations and suspicious of politician rhetoric.
This is one reason why conservatism demands a strict reading of the Constitution in American politics. Progressivism, in contrast, urges a more forgiving reading and struggles to understand why their foes would elect to yoke themselves to centuries-old prescriptions. While the Founding Fathers may have represented flashy radicalism for their astonishing break with the British Crown, these white-wigged Philadelphians who authored our founding documents championed principles that were unapologetically conservative in nature.
They practically shivered before the great shadow of human nature, retaliating against this chilly awareness by drawing up an elaborate web of constitutional restraints. They certainly did not beam with fantasies of the perfectibility of the masses in standard progressive fashion but punctuated their public remarks instead with stern warnings about bloated governments and the latent tyranny inherent in anything with too much power and size. They also pioneered the novel notion of “inalienable” rights bequeathed by God himself.
These men repeatedly alluded to the carefully-negotiated tension between the government and the people. Both these entities possessed responsibilities and a purpose to serve in relation to the other but they did naturally oppose each other. Thus, we see the conservative’s reverence for law and order but also his demand for small government at work here.
Authority and liberty in the conservative paradigm are equally vital but naturally antagonistic so that it would be necessary to elucidate the importance of constantly mediating this tricky relationship. Luckily, the Founding Fathers presciently understood that a strong case would need to be made against citizen complacency in this area.
Despite comprising that skewered entity themselves, America’s Founding Fathers approached their stations with heavy caution and a vibrant sense of moral duty. Their collective belief in the evil capacities of men would prove unwavering. Power would always corrupt, they maintained, regardless of the loveliest of advertised aspirations.
The benevolent politician was a ruse and could not be trusted; the careful code of the Bill of Rights would ensure that Nature would not get its way, that that Darwinian tussle of power which would inevitably materialize absent constraints on national leaders would not come to pass. Notably, this “power always corrupts” conviction is unabashedly fatalistic. This staple sentiment of conservatism alludes to original sin in the biblical Garden of Eden, to the Christian notion of human fallibility.
Another intriguing aspect of conservative philosophy is how it perceives societal systems to work. Conservatism is bottom-up and building-block oriented. What do I mean by that? In one vein, the conservative extols personal responsibility and individual morality, not just as laudable in themselves but as the essential building blocks of a healthy society. The progressive, in contrast, is apt to see social dilemmas as demanding top-down solutions. If we look at the conservative and liberal philosophies stripped of their ideological content and moral gravitas and see them naked with only the skeleton of their system features to their names we notice something quite interesting.
Conservatism’s loyalty to the slow plod has practical merit. By allowing change to filter in gradually and be allowed the opportunity to synchronize and acclimate in the existing environment one stands the least chance of upsetting the society’s equilibrium. This method patterns itself on Hippocrates’ “do no harm” principle that grounds the practice of medicine and lends greater gravity to the surgeon’s scalpel. It is when aggressive liberal reforms are enacted that the organism of the state is denied acclimatization and begins to bulge with unforeseen outgrowths.
Perhaps a certain radical reform meant to vigorously attack one problem ends up making meager inroads on the original goal and instead creates three new problems. The top-down style of progressive politics squeezes, pressurizes, and contorts the system as a whole. There is, unfortunately, no such thing as a targeted fix capable of injecting a pristinely isolated antidote and then clinically withdrawing.
Curiously, it is conservatism that people associate with suppression. When in reality, conservatism is slow and measured, keepings its hands out. It is in progressivism that we see the squeeze. Why? In energetically promoting something new it must suppress somewhere else to make room for its agenda. At large, progressivism has the tendency to gallop ahead and make grave errors. Of course, if we wish to see how well the most audacious schemes of top-down reform played out, we need only turn our eyes to the monstrously sweeping and then imploding totalitarian regimes of the 20th-century.
I want to turn back yet again to the modern liberal impulse in social engineering. In the 21st century a particularly infectious idea has taken hold that humanity has reached a point where it is seemingly unforgivable that we have not eradicated everything terrible with the world. Headlines somberly declare that almost everything under the sun is “not okay”. A suffocating strain of problematics grips all social issues.
The correctives are numerous but the problems keep stubbornly multiplying. One theory I have for this modern hysteria is that Americans committed such astounding economic leaps and bounds throughout the industrialization era that now that we’ve been able to catch our breath we have sought to shift this aggressive energy elsewhere. Mass industrialization proved so heady and so precise, efficient, and productive that in bizarre compensation our society has made a lunge towards social engineering.
Far from perfecting society, these efforts almost have an unraveling effect on American culture. Progressive anger becomes harder and more inviolable by the day, a festering outrage that we can’t seem to innovate into “better” humans faster. This perpetual “falling short” is experienced as intensely aggravating.
Of course, however far-reaching these better-human visions are, the liberal impulse is to condemn that abstract entity “society” and to demand corrective action from those higher up the hierarchy. The conservative is more modest when it comes to imagining “better humans” but more to the point, he is apt to believe that the solution lies in the individual (the building block, remember?) rather than in blistering top-down remedies.
Conservative eyes see human nature as mostly static, as a tragic reality best utilized as the fulcrum of our political prescriptions. They are embedded with a skepticism of benevolent intentions and care not a whit for the romantic promises of theory. Conservative eyes sees a sparking tension between the belligerent twins of authority and liberty which demands careful, watchful negotiation.
The conservative also sees the accumulated intelligence in the reservoir of history and the secret system-benefits of a slow, sputtering integration of change. Long suffering under the unfortunate reduction to a blanket policy of resisting the proposals of “default” liberalism, we can hopefully begin to see it is a strong and vibrant political philosophy in its own right, teeming with quiet but undeniable wisdom.